Whenever a motorcycle passes me on a highway, I instantly hear “Bad To The Bone” by George Thorogood and The Destroyers playing in my head. There’s just an edginess to operating that kind of machinery — the same edginess I associate with leather jackets or worn army boots. There must be an exhilarating freedom that comes with bounding down an open road with the wind hugging you on all sides, too. Of course, I’ll probably never know, considering I still have reservations about riding a bike without training wheels. Evidently, though, riding a motorcycle can be good for you, according to new research — just, you know, as long as you stay focused on the road, and keep both hands on the steering handles.
In a first-of-its-kind neurobiological study funded by Harley Davidson, a small team of researchers from UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior recruited 50 experienced motorcyclists to see if riding a motorcycle actually produces the stress-relieving benefits that many riders swear by. As per an overview of the study sent to Elite Daily, the researchers documented the brain activity and hormone levels of each participant before, during, and after riding a motorcycle, driving a car, and sitting passively to measure each individual’s brain waves, heart rate, respiration, cardiovascular health, endorphins, and stress levels. According to Harley Davidson's official press release, the results showed that after just 20 minutes, riding a motorcycle can decrease levels of cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone, and increase the rider’s ability to focus.
Experiments are oftentimes conducted in laboratories, but doing so can limit the researcher’s ability to mirror the true complexities and textures of the real world, UCLA neuroscientist Mark Cohen explained in a video documenting the team’s efforts. For this particular study, however, the researchers were able to evaluate a potential shift in the brain’s state in the real world, and that’s what made it so unique, study lead and UCLA neuroscientist, Dr. Don Vaughn, tells me. The research itself is preliminary, but Dr. Vaughn says that doesn’t make it any less significant.
“We had riders come from hours away, including across the U.S.-Mexico border, to participate in the study and contribute to understanding the science behind their experience,” Dr. Vaughn tells Elite Daily over email. “I find it unlikely that people would go to all this effort if there wasn’t something real going on.”
The inspiration to carry out this experiment stemmed from pure curiosity, Dr. Vaughn tells me, as many riders he knew were always saying there was “something unique” about their experience on a motorcycle. Judging by the data that he and his team collected from this experiment, there’s clearly something there. “We found that riding a motorcycle for 20 minutes caused a significant reduction in relative levels of the stress hormone, cortisol,” Dr. Vaughn notes, adding that the team also saw an 11 percent increase in heart rate, as well as a 27 percent increase in adrenaline levels, which, he says, is similar to the effects of light exercise.
Look, I can't deny that this research is compelling. Personally, though, I’m just not entirely sure that hopping on a motorcycle would bring me anything but sheer terror. According to Dr. Vaughn, however, the study participants reported that focusing all their attention on the road, and immersing themselves in that environment, was incredibly stress-relieving. "It isn’t specifically the exercise, the scenery, or the solitude, but all of them together [that has a calming affect]," he explains.
As it turns out, Dr. Vaughn and his team aren't the only ones to recognize these benefits. According to Eric Hinman, a CrossFit and endurance athlete, entrepreneur, and motorcycle enthusiast who was not part of the UCLA study, riding a motorcycle can give off a sensation comparable to a runner's high, in the sense that riders can get lost in that same type of endorphin rush. "I think it’s a combination of the risk of being on the motorcycle, having to be in the present moment (watching for other motorists), and just being outside taking in these epic views," Hinman tells Elite Daily. "[Riding] opens my mind up to creativity, and it’s a time when I can just think big; I’m not on my phone, I’m not interrupted by any distractions. I’m just in my own little world thinking creative thoughts."
As amazing as this all sounds, keep in mind that riding a motorcycle can also be extremely dangerous. In May of 2018, the Governors Highway Safety Association released preliminary data showing motorcyclist fatalities by state in 2017, and while there were 300 fewer fatalities than there were in 2016, Forbes reported that nearly 5,000 people were killed on motorcycles in 2017 due to poor weather conditions, alcohol and drug impairment, distraction on the road, or failing to wear helmets.
Luckily, if you're hesitant to ride a motorcycle, Hinman says you can definitely reap similar benefits by riding something a bit more low-key, like a moped.
"I would encourage anyone who is afraid of riding a motorcycle, because it is dangerous, to take just a little bit of a risk, whether it’s on a moped or motorized skateboard or scooter, and just get out there and explore," Himan tells Elite Daily. "Anything where you’re outside, you have to be present, you’re not being disrupted by distractions and notifications on your phone — that can help put you in a flow state."